European Dream - Top Champions League Contenders
With the football season just about to burst into life once more, we examine who are the main teams in contention for Europe’s greatest cup competition. The Champions League brings together the brightest talents from the best leagues, allowing us to sit back in amazement. The trophy was awarded to Real Madrid in May; their ‘La Decima’, in what was a fitting ending to a fabulous season of football. So who can we expect to be in the running to take the Champions League away from Los Blancos, or will they retain their title?
It was certainly not a vintage twelve months for Barcelona, neither for the club as a whole or the team itself on the pitch. During the Guardiola reign and even under Vilanova to an extent, we have become so used to the Catalans sweeping all before them with consummate ease. However, they ended 2013/14 trophyless, a feat which prompted the end of Tata Martino. Barcelona’s play and ethos has been based around one man; Lionel Messi, and when he was not firing on all cylinders, his team struggled. Having to work through niggling muscular injuries seriously hampered his effectiveness and he quite simply did not look himself
Off the pitch hardly ran any smoother either, with the transfer of Neymar from Santos causing major issues due to insufficient and misplaced payments. Significant fines and repayments had to be made, only adding to the embarrassment. Furthermore, they were initially placed under a transfer embargo for incorrect practice relating to several members of their academy and youth squad. This ban on signing players was subsequently lifted however, much to the displeasure of the general observer, allowing them to sign the ultra-controversial Luis Suarez only weeks after biting Giorgio Chiellini. Clearly Barcelona’s public relations staff had taken the year off.
Messi had a strong world cup, and now that he is fit and firing again, people won’t have the notion that he is ‘saving’ himself for the national side. Suarez has been bought for £75 million and adds undoubted quality, also helping to take the goal scoring burden off Messi. Carles Puyol retired during the summer, and Enrique has recognised the need to strengthen his defence, bringing in the reliable Jeremy Mathieu from Valencia and Thomas Vermaelen from Arsenal; a man with a point to prove after being out in the cold last season. Both of these players can fill in at either centre half or full back, therefore not only adding strength but versatility as well.
It was their defence which cost them so dearly last year, both in La Liga and the Champions League. While they and Messi were scoring goals for fun, defensive frailties could be overlooked because the Barcelona machine rolled on, trampling all in their path. However, going into the second leg at the quarter-final stage against fellow Spaniards Atlético Madrid, they already had the advantage of an away goal, but even at the Nou Camp, could not manage to achieve the required clean sheet.
With significant arrivals in the shape of Suarez and Rakitic, their attack is much more balanced, and they should be stronger in defence too. I can’t see Barcelona having quite as poor a season again, and so would be greatly surprised if they did not make it to the Champions League semi-final at least, though they easily have a squad capable of winning the entire tournament.
The German giants from Bavaria waltzed to the Bundesliga title under Pep Guardiola’s stewardship, and with the trophy all but secure from early spring, the club’s entire focus switched to the Champions League. Having lifted the cup in the previous season thanks to a 2-1 victory in the final over Bundesliga rivals Borussia Dortmund, they were bidding to become the very first club to retain the European Cup in its current form. In a manner not too dissimilar to their league progression, the early rounds proved to be relatively simple for Bayern, overcoming all in their path and scoring plenty of goals in the process.
Rave reviews of the performances of Neuer, Lahm, Kroos and Robben were plentiful thanks to the fabulous domestic results they had obtained. So when the Champions League semi-final draw was made, pairing Bayern with Real Madrid, it is an understatement to say that the world’s lips were most certainly being licked. Everybody expected a titanic tussle, with some of Europe’s finest players on display and coached by Champions League experts. However, it has been well documented that the 2 legged affair did not exactly conform to these predictions. Despite Bayern’s apparently irrepressible amount of possession, they did not achieve anything with it and the Spanish side counter attacked at will to catch them cold on multiple occasions. Bayern were thrashed 4-0 in their own stadium and it is not unfair to say that Real could easily have scored more. Leaving themselves far too much to do in the second leg, they were defeated 1-0 and so rather than remembering the multiple trophies Guardiola had secured already that season, the poignant moment in the minds of Bayern fans was the manner of their Champions League exit. Failure on a similar level again this year will not be tolerated.
During the summer, Bayern’s squad has only got stronger. The drawn out acquisition of Robert Lewandowski was finally completed to add a world class number 9 to their already frightening front line. While they did sell Toni Kroos to Real Madrid, they possess no shortage of top quality midfielders, so much so that a man of his ability will not really be missed. Philipp Lahm’s international retirement is also a positive for Bayern, as it allows him to be fresher for their games. Pep Guardiola remains a terrific coach, and I believe that circumstances got the better of him and his team in the semis last season. If Robben can hit the heights of this summer’s World Cup, and Lewandowski hit the ground running and form a strong partnership with Thomas Mueller, then the trophy is certainly not beyond them. With a strong start in the Bundesliga, they may well enter the Champions League knockout stages as outright favourites.
With ultimate pragmatist and born winner José Mourinho at the helm, Chelsea can never be discounted from any competition they enter. Although he has not yet won the Champions League trophy with The Blues in either spell in charge, his history with the competition while in other jobs is marvellous. Winning Europe’s elite tournament first with the unfancied Porto and then with Inter Milan, José has been able to bring the knowledge into Stamford Bridge that those two journeys built up.
He did not win a trophy in his first season back as boss at Chelsea, but was not far off in many instances. The Premier League title was not out of their grasp until the very end and Chelsea were only knocked out of the Champions League in an incredibly tight and tense semi-final. Right from the very beginning of the campaign, Mourinho did not feel that he had the squad to challenge for the highest of honours then, but that we would have to wait until this season. Mind games of course, but he was nonetheless correct about the first half of his statement. If Chelsea have a poor start after José’s claims for this year however, you can guarantee that he will be hounded for his earlier bullishness.
Certainly in one department, it cannot be denied that his squad simply was not up to standard. Chelsea’s striking contingent consisted of a famously aging Samuel Eto’o; still capable of providing a finish but not as lively as his younger days, Fernando Torres who continued his rather forgettable form in Chelsea blue, and Demba Ba who never quite seemed of the class required to fit in at The Bridge. Now that Mourinho has had the opportunity to bring in his own, he has acquired the potent Diego Costa from Atlético Madrid and club legend Didier Drogba, both of whom he feels he can rely upon. With proven Champions League pedigree in an abundance between the pair of them, goals in the biggest of matches should be nowhere near as much of a concern. This means that the goal burden shifts from the creative players in behind, allowing them to concentrate on creating chances. If all goes to plan, then José will expect to be competing right until the end on four fronts this season, and I do not believe the Champions League to be any different. It is a deep-rooted and personal mission for Mourinho to win it with Chelsea, and one that he will not give up lightly. With the Special One’s attention so firmly on the prize at stake, The Blues will be a match for absolutely anyone in the tournament.
The Spanish giants, and current holders of the Champions League, arguably possess the strongest squad out of all the teams in the competition. Across all areas of the pitch, Real Madrid are blessed with quality and numbers, but nowhere are they stronger than in attack. Forward-thinking central midfielders such as Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Isco, and Di Maria complement the lethal attacking quartet of James Rodriguez, Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, and Karim Benzema. Simply by raw talent alone, they will test all opposition defences to the breaking point, regardless of how strong, and could more than make up for any potential defensive frailties of their own.
As previously mentioned, they won the Champions League last season after a rather flattering 4-1 score-line in the final itself. Until the final few minutes, city rivals Atlético Madrid actually held the lead, only to be blown away during the extra half hour of extra time. It is frightening to think of the destruction that Real Madrid handed out to the best of opponents last year, even without big money additions James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos. Defeating pre-tournament favourites Bayern Munich 4-0 in their own back yard before going on to win the final in the manner already described demonstrates to me a team with an almost infinite degree of attacking intent.
Not only have they made significant additions to the squad, but all of the crucial elements from last year have been retained within the group. Winning such a huge trophy together will only serve to galvanise the players of Real Madrid, giving an increased determination to become the first side ever to retain the Champions League. The most expensive player in the world; Gareth Bale, has had a full season to develop a feeling of belonging in the Spanish capital and unlike last summer, has been able to put in a complete pre-season. This is invaluable for your long-term fitness and general well-being at a club. With all of these factors considered, plus Carlo Ancelotti’s outstanding pedigree in the competition, I would make Real Madrid my favourites for the Champions League before a ball has been kicked.
Champions of England in 2014 but yet again quite disappointing in the Champions League was Manchester City. Ever since the significant cash injection experienced as a result of the club’s takeover, success at Europe’s top table has been both a realistic and almost necessary ambition for the blue half of Manchester. Regardless of the scintillating form that they were showing in the Premier League at the time, a battle on the European stage always seemed to outfox them in the end.
While they have even failed on one occasion to progress from the Champions League group stages, The Citizens managed to achieve this aim last season at least, only to be knocked out in the last 16. 5 victories in the group was very impressive and had it not been for a 3-1 defeat at The Etihad at the hands of Bayern Munich on matchday 2, they may well have actually won the group. As it was, finishing in second was crucial as it meant they would face the might of Barcelona in the last 16. Despite not being at the top of their game, the big match experience and overall ‘clever’ play of the Spanish side was too much for the still relatively inexperienced Manchester City. It may have seemed unlucky, but the Champions League has a knack of sorting the wheat from the chaff, meaning City were not really up to it. Barcelona were hardly at their best last year, and Man City still lost both legs to them, at an aggregate score of 4-1, showing how far they still have to come to be considered top contenders.
However, I believe that the experience of another successful Premier League run-in will have done the players no end of good. With their summer arrivals to add to the championship-winning squad already present, they have a great blend of youth and experience, with both groups hungry for success. Yaya Touré and Pablo Zabaleta are approaching the end of their top level careers and so will be desperate to go out on a high, while Mangala and Fernando would love to cap the first year of their fledgling Manchester City careers with the greatest trophy of the lot. Although Manchester City may not begin the Champions League process as strong favourites, a relatively comfortable group stage coupled with a favourable knockout draw, could easily see them reaching the latter rounds.
The sides above are whom I believe will be the top 5 contenders for European glory this season, but these are certainly not the only ones with a good chance by all means. The following sides have just missed out on a place among the leading contenders, and could well be dark horses to lift the trophy in May.
Since the change of ownership a few seasons back, the French champions have not quite made the strides in Europe’s elite competition that many would have expected. They may have bundles of talent at their disposal, but seem to suffer from the erstwhile problem of a rapidly assembled squad; they have not completely gelled together and always seem to come out second best in the biggest of matches against wily opponents.
They have brought in the much maligned David Luiz to help reinforce the defence, but I am not sure that the Qataris have spent that £50 million particularly wisely. Especially after their World Cup display as a pair, I am yet to be convinced that even the ever reliable Thiago Silva can compensate for Luiz’s error-prone nature. PSG have not been without rumours of departures either, with Edinson Cavani especially being strongly linked with a move to the Premier League. They failed to acquire Antoine Griezmann who instead chose Atlético Madrid. All in all, this transfer window has not been a fruitful one for the Parisians, but with their considerable financial backing, they have the ability to make an astonishing signing in the last few days of the window that could propel them into contention.
Since their unprecedented La Liga triumph and march all the way to the Champions League final last year, Atlético have had to deal with a somewhat inevitable flood of interest in their top players from the more established sides in Europe’s top leagues. Currently, the most notable absentees have all found their way to Stamford Bridge. Without any real standout superstars in their ranks, it would be difficult to say who their most important players were. However, no one can deny the importance of goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, left-back Felipe Luis and marksman Diego Costa. Courtois of course was already Chelsea’s player officially, but the other two must have impressed José Mourinho in their two-legged Champions League semi-final.
Thankfully for Atlético, we have not seen the relentless outpouring of their stars which could easily have taken place, instead retaining many of the core and in fact managing to use their cache to build up the squad. The likes of Koke, Arda Turan, Gabi, Juanfran, Diego Godin, and Miranda all staying is vital for any desires they have of challenging for trophies again this season. Additions to the core group have come in the form of Mario Mandzukic and Antoine Griezmann; one a seasoned Champions League performer and the other with the youth and ability to take the world by storm. If Diego Simeone can instil a similar attitude into these additions, do not expect Atlético to be any sort of walkover, instead still absolutely capable of reaching the latter knockout rounds.
Assuming that they can retain their stars between now and the end of the transfer window, Juve will yet again have a tremendously strong squad. The Serie A champions possess quality cover in all areas of the park, and after the signing of Alvaro Morata, they have a youthful striker to learn from the seasoned campaigners already at the club. Despite this terrific group on paper, they have not done themselves justice in the Champions League for quite some time, even occasionally dropping into the Europa League after the group stage. Even the prowess of Chiellini, Vidal, Pogba, Pirlo, and Tevez cannot prevent this from happening.
To be honest, their vast difference in success between domestic and European competition puzzles me, and if the draw is relatively kind to them, they should easily make it into the knockout rounds. It would not surprise me in the slightest if they were to reach the quarter finals and possibly a round further, simply due to the raw talent at the disposal of Massimiliano Allegri.
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